The only proper way to smoke

Julius Vesz’ pipes take up to 300 years to grow and up to $1,000 to buy


JULIUS VESZ has achieved an artistic pinnacle. His clients come to him from around the world. He’s been asked to contribute examples of his art to the National Design Council. He makes a comfortable living in an environment that’s closer to a gentleman’s den than a place of business.

So what does Vesz classify as his outstanding achievement? Getting people to quit smoking cigarettes. “Then I can teach them to smoke properly,” says Vesz.

Which, to Vesz, is smoking a pipe. The pleasures, he claims, are unparalleled. But it’s definitely an acquired taste.

Before you can learn to smoke a pipe, of course, you have to own one. In fact, a minimum of six, all of which should last a lifetime given the proper care, says Vesz. As the owner and sole employee of Craft Pipes, Vesz is one of the few pipe makers still practicing an art that has, he claims, suffered from mass production.

Shop is a misnomer when applied to his place of business, it’s more a gallery of some of the highest-quality pipes in the world, a sanctum 10 steps below the bawling York Street traffic of downtown Toronto. The display room exudes a richness, though whether through the genuine wood, the mellow fragrance of over 250 blends of imported tobacco, the perfect lighting from the hand-made coach lights, or exactly the right volume of classical music, one can’t be sure.

Customers come in to buy and stay to browse and exchange information with this expert in the art of pipe smoking.

“The biggest mistake would-be pipe smokers make is buying in the drugstore,” says Vesz. He proffers a little box full of weird aluminum and steel fittings extracted from under aspirated pipes of exasperated customers. “Any pipe with metal in it makes smoking distasteful,” he claims.

Equally disappointing, says Vesz, is tobacco selected on the basis of a whiff while it’s in the pouch or being smoked in somebody else’s pipe. “The more aromatic the tobacco, the more additives and the harsher the smoke,” he says. “The beginner should stick with as mild a blend as possible.”

How to choose the right pipe? “The quality of the briar of the bowl is the ultimate criterion. The closer the grain, the better the pipe. But the shape should be comfortable.” Sadly, Vesz says the world supply of quality briar — actually the burl of the briar root — is running out. And since it takes a minimum of 60 years in a Mediterranean climate to grow an adequate replacement —300 years for the very best — briar is clearly not the most rapidly renewable resource in the world.

The volume of Vesz’ business — about 2,000 pipes a year — dictates that the basic shape of the bowls for most of his pipes be prepared for him. The final rendering of this class of pipe, however, calls on Vesz’ 15 years’ experience as well as some finishing secrets passed down from his grandfather, a pipe maker in Vest native Hungary.

His greatest satisfaction, though is the challenge of creating a freestyle pipe. He sells about 200 of these a year.

Freestyle pipes bring out the artist in the craftsman. Hand-selected briar blocks are dipped in water to reveal the grain. This is then translate into a unique shape that is perfectly balanced in the owner’s mouth.

Vesz will also carve the stem to fit the customer’s bite. The pipe is more comfortable and the stem less likely to be bitten through.

Vesz has given up predicting the time it takes to produce a freestyle pipe. “I could be three-quarters of the way finished, discover a flaw in the briar and have to begin again with a new block.” Though the flaw would not affect the smoke from the pipe, he says “for a freestyle pipe, I demand absolute perfection before letting it go.”

Often three or four blocks of briar may turn out to have flaws before a perfect one is found. On the other hand, the first block he chooses might be perfect. Either way, the price — from $75 to $1,000 — remains as originally quoted. Consequently, Vesz’ profit on freestyles varies from excellent to zilch.

What makes a pipe worth $1,000? “Carved figures on the bowl, a great deal of silver and ivory inlay, a hand-made silver cap and an intricately carved vulcanite stem,” says Vesz, “And of course, a superb piece of briar.”

Quality notwithstanding, smoking any pipe incorrectly destroys both the pleasure and the pipe. Tips are helpful from the (unravaged) tongue of the master:

• Take your time breaking the pipe in. Fill it only halfway until the carbon builds up inside the bowl. • Puffing too hard or packing tobacco too tightly will overheat the bowl. • Pipe smoke should never be inhaled. • Letting carbon get thicker than 1/16-inch is “asking for a cracked bowl when a cool wind or the Canadian winter hits the outside of the pipe.” • A bent stem allows a heavier, larger bowl without loosening molars. “And younger men shouldn’t worry about looking older with a bent-stem pipe; they don’t.”

And Vesz uses nothing but wooden matches to light the pipe which is, of course, perpetually in his mouth as he works.